Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 6
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XI. A GALLERY OF PICTURES.
In this country the infant mind at an early stage of its development is made acquainted with two important propositions: one being that Idleness is the root of all Evil; the other, that the English are naturally an Industrious People. These are impressed upon the youthful student by that system of iteration which seems to be the great secret of education. He daily writes the one in his copy-book, and reads the other from his Guy’s Geography, until he is generally supposed to be impregnated with them, and as a result to believe in both most fully and potently. It should be rather said, however, not so much that he accepts as that he does not refuse these axioms, or, at most, that he receives them with that intellectual lethargy and languid unquestioning, that suspension of mental activity which forms a large part of faith and conviction, or what passes for such, all over the world. For it appears to be held that men have a vital belief, and they are so credited, provided they have not already debited themselves with a lively proclaimed Pyrrhonism.
A consequence of this state of things is that there are no recognised drones in Great Britain’s hive. Though all are not equally industrious, all affect to be equally busy, and so the respectability of the thing is apparently well maintained. If you are determined to be lazy, you must be so behind a screen. Be idle if you will, only don’t profess idleness. The nation does not object to compromise the matter. Indeed, as a rule the popular notion of virtue in general is that it is a fair subject for compromise. Like legal gin, virtue is not required by society to be above, while there is no limitation as to how much it may be under, a certain proof. A little adulteration is rather desirable; in its integrity the article might almost be recommended by a shopkeeper, as “well adapted for mixing purposes.” Few take it “neat;” it so unfits them for the business of life: and some are satisfied with a very considerable dilution. Be idle, but have an excuse. Eat your dinners and call yourself a barrister, or enter the army for some two months, or engage a studio and pretend you follow the fine arts; or, if you live in the country, become a J.P., and maintain your respectability by twice a year damning a peasant as a poacher. Wear a mask; you need not mind how thin it is; hide your head in the sand like the ostrich, and the world, more obliging than the bird's foes, will concede that your whole body is admirably concealed. Shams are now and then abused, but they are dearly loved for all that; and they are indispensable to civilisation. Look at a prince affecting to be a bricklayer, and laying a first stone; how he messes about with the silver trowel, and how the public applauds him—how it glories in the scene! Certainly shams are great institutions! Are all great institutions shams?
But it is not only in the higher circles that people pretend to be busy as an excuse for doing nothing. Royalty plays at soldiering and sailoring; our nobility follow the pursuit of legislation—there are certainly some very unbusiness-like senators; gentlemen of fortune bob their heads for one day in the law courts, and are burthened with a wig box and the title of barrister for the remainder of their natural lives (what would some of these do—how angry they would be—supposing anybody were to send them a brief!); very superior creatures have entered the army for the express purpose of retiring from it; there have been even clergymen who don't preach, and can't cure souls; perhaps doctors who heal for love and not for fees. And it is the same through all the strata of society. The analogy fits to every rundle of the ladder. There are plenty of persons, for instance, who keep shops by way of becomingly doing nothing. I have heard of crossing-sweepers whose avocation was a mere pretence—men of fortune, they held the broom from no regard for halfpence; simply because it behoved them to assume the semblance of industry; because they had heard the statements that Idleness was the root of all Evil, and that the English were an Industrious People and knew that as citizens they must act accordingly.
It cannot be supposed that all the shops in London are remunerative. Of course not. Many of them are tradesmen's follies in disguise, excuses for idleness; sometimes even expensive hobbies. As he cannot do nothing as a non-practising advocate or parson, or a retired soldier, the shopkeeper with a taste for idleness does nothing as a shop-keeper. I am about to introduce the reader to a shop and shopkeeper of this kind.
Soho Square had not been wholly handed over to trade, and many neighbouring streets had been only partially disfigured by shops. But the neighbourhood was steadily on the decline. Private houses were emptying—were in decided decadence, As a symbol of fall there were here and there tablets affixed between the parlour windows, inscribed with trade announcements: it was as though the houses had been marked out for destruction. By-and-by, parlour windows were abolished; the front was taken off the lower part of the house; for a day or two it remained like that—a ghastly object with an open wound; then came the inevitable, unmistakeable shop window. Gentility was gone for ever: Commerce reigned in its stead.
On a door of one of the houses in Freer Street, on the right-hand side going from Soho Square, was the name of "J. Phillimore." No mention of a trade followed this name, nor had the ground floor windows been blended into a shop front. Yet it was evident that some kind of business was supposed to be carried on in the house; decidedly some such impression was intended to be conveyed. For in one of the windows was a very black oil painting, of small size and without a frame, that looked as though it had been steeped in treacle. In the other window stood a carved frame, black with age, but without a picture; and it was not large enough for the picture in the window first mentioned. There was a background of green baize to these properties. What trade was carried on by Mr. Phillimore? If you had asked his neighbours they would have informed you that Mr. Phillimore was a picture dealer, and they would have considered that such an answer afforded you ample instruction on the subject.
It hardly did that. Mr. Phillimore kept a shop for the express purpose of doing nothing in it. He had not dealt in pictures for very many years; he never intended to deal in pictures again. He no more contemplated selling the picture and the frame in his windows, symbolising his supposititious trade, than a gold-beater reckons upon an offer to purchase the gilded arm and hammer projecting from his first-floor. There were one or two more pictures in the front room, which was not fitted up in the least like a shop; these also were rather treacly in hue, and quite French polished in surface, but were no more for sale than the ordinary fittings of the parlour of a private family. Mr. Phillimore lived on the premises. He was rich enough to retire from business, perhaps, but not rich enough to retire from his shop. So he resided in Freer Street, doing nothing but in compliance with social requirements previously alluded to: affecting to be a tradesman—pretending to deal in pictures.
It was a comfortable room, with a turkey carpet, a red flock paper, a bronze chandelier, antique chairs, and a mirror set in carved oak over the fire-place. The room at the back was its counterpart, only that it was smaller. Mr. Phillimore occupied the back room as a matter of preference. It was less cheerful than the other. It looked on to a water-butt and had a fine prospect of slated roofs and out-buildings and kitchen chimneys. But perhaps he had never been able to divest himself altogether of the notion that the front room was after all, strictly speaking, a shop; while no such impeachment could in any way attach to the back-parlour. And he became the room, did Mr. Phillimore; for he too was comfortable-looking—a prosperous man leading a cosy, methodical, enjoyable life; a bachelor, without the slightest intention of ever changing his condition. A bald-headed man, with yet a half-chaplet of rather long grey hair, and sometimes a jaunty velvet cap to hide his baldness, for he considered and cultivated his appearance. Round rosy features, a twinkling black eye, dark eye-brows, a portly figure, carefully dressed. He always wore black, a complete suit, with a dress coat, a stiff, white neckerchief, a frilled shirt adorned with a large brooch. A man came regularly to shave him early in the morning, after which he breakfasted in a superb brocaded dressing-gown; then he read the paper scrupulously; at mid-day he assumed the whitest cravat, and thrust his neat feet into the brightest boots that could be seen for miles round. He was then dressed for the day. He took most delicious snuff from a grand gold box; he smoked occasionally very fragrant tobacco from a gorgeous pipe, silver mounted and with a china bowl, exquisitely painted. He had in his cellar some of the nicest port wine (in pints) that ever was tasted. Mr. Phillimore led altogether a very snug, sybaritic life in the back-parlour behind his counterfeit shop.
He was walking up and down the front room in a reflective sort of way, to the music of his massive watch key and seals rattling before him, and the money jingling in his pockets. He hummed an air of an operatic character now and then for his own amusement. He had a prosperous abandon about him altogether that was indeed charming.
A knock at the street door.
Mr. Phillimore peeped furtively over the green baize screen, the background of the picture in the window.
"I thought as much," he said. And he went out into the passage. "Never mind, Sally," he cried over the kitchen stairs; "I'll open the door."
"Good morning, sir," he said, in a frank, cordial way, to a gentleman who stood on the doorstep. "Pray walk in. He's not come home yet, but I expect him every minute. Step in," and Mr. Phillimore led the way into his front room. The gentleman, tall, handsome, with a pleasant smile, evidently amused, followed him.
"Do you know, sir," Mr. Phillimore began. "Do you know, sir—Mr.—Martin, I think?"
"Do you know, Mr. Martin, that you are singularly like a Lawrence?"
"Indeed," said Mr. Martin with a puzzled expression.
"Yes. I've seen a great many of Sir Thomas's heads that were very much less in his own manner, and very much less worthy of him than yours is. Quite the Lawrence eye—bright and piercing, and the Lawrence lips, beautifully drawn, with a dimple at each end of them. Yes, you're undoubtedly a very fine example of Sir Thomas, in very nice preservation. My remarks astonish you, perhaps?"
"Well: they strike me as a little unusual."
"But they're not rude, believe me, and they are distinctly true—they have that merit. You see, in the course of a career of some length as a picture-dealer, a great number of works have passed through my hands; in fact, I think, I have almost seen as many painted semblances of my fellow creatures, as I've seen real human beings, and I cannot resist classifying them. My trade instincts get the better of me, and I refer them all to their proper schools. For myself, now,"—and Mr. Phillimore inspected his plump face in the glass over the fire-place—"I am Dutch, decidedly—quite in the Flemish manner. I might be a Von Tilberg, or an Ostade, or a Brauwer. Portrait of a Burgomaster. I should look very well like that in a catalogue; a little change of dress, a velvet cloak with a fur collar, a gold chain or so, and I should be perfect. And Sally! You've seen our servant Sally here. Well, old Sally is a perfect Rembrandt—a delicious example—she ought never to be touched, much less cleaned; just a little dusting now and then with a silk handkerchief, that would be quite sufficient. They've taken to spoiling her up-stairs under the notion of smartening her up. They mean well, but it's a great mistake. She's worth any money as she is. She's got the right snuffy sort of shadow under her nose, and all her wrinkles are in the most superb impasto you ever set eyes upon. And our friend up-stairs, mind you, is a very respectable Velasquez, very respectable indeed, fit for any gallery, or," and Mr. Phillimore mused a little, "he might almost be Zurburan. With a particular kind of glazing, he'd even be taken for a Spagnoletto, and by no means a bad specimen of the master."
"And the lady?"
"Ah! the lady's charming: Raphaelesque, isn't she? beautiful I call her. If she's not a genuine Raphael,—there are very few genuine Raphaels,—she's a fine production of the school of Raphael. She's the lovely brow and liquid grey eyes, with the beautiful high light in them. Not raw paint, mind; but the most tender demi-tint—exquisite! She was too much for me—quite too much for me. I gave in at once. You see, you don't often have a real Raphael—even an approach to one—knocking at your street door. What could I do? My lodgers had all been single men before. I thought I preferred single men. I thought my Rembrandt in the kitchen preferred single men; but when she wanted to take the apartments what could I do, but let them to her? I never thought to have had so splendid a specimen of the Italian School so near me. And that's two years ago—and she's as good as ever, the colour hasn't gone down a bit. That's the thing with the old masters—they're so sound—no mistake about them—last beautiful for ever! Almost improve with keeping, like good wine. You wouldn't care to take port before your dinner, or I think I could give you a nice glass. None of your tawny, dry, thin stuff, but old, with a grand body and a heavenly bouquet. That's the port wine I like. We must have a bottle together some day, I know you'll like it. You don't get such wine as that every day. No one does. Yes," and Mr. Phillimore resumed the thread of his discourse. "I feel with these people in my house that my collection is almost unique. I don't really know where it could possibly be matched. And then, last year, they had a friend to stop with them, a friend from the country, a young lady—"
"A sister of Raphael's Madonna, I believe she was, Madge they called her. Exceedingly charming. I had great difficulty in classing her. Sometimes I thought she was a Lancret, and there were moments when I even regarded her as a Greuze. The woman is very beautiful who carries into womanhood the beauty of infancy. You see that often in Greuze, though he often spoils it with his Frenchness; he will sometimes make his child-women conscious—a cruel mistake. She was very delightful was the sister of Raphael's Madonna."
Mr. Martin bowed his acquiescence. He was amused and yet puzzled with the picture-dealer. He found it difficult to conceive that it was only for this he had been drawn into the ground-floor room. But he entered thoroughly into the spirit of his new friend's humour.
"And the baby?" he asked with a smile.
"Well, the baby." And Mr. Phillimore paused as though the baby were a very serious subject indeed. "Who'd have thought of a baby being born in this house! I wonder the authorities didn't refuse to register the birth. By Jove! they'd have been almost justified; upon a primâ facie view the thing might well seem impossible. But when you once break through a rule, when you once give up a sworn determination to have only single men lodgers, you must be prepared to take the consequences, even though they should assume the form of babies! And do you know a baby isn't, after all, so black as it's painted; the idea is, after all, frequently worse than the actuality. I am a bachelor—I intend to remain so—there's no fear of my altering my mind in that respect—don't mistake me. I have brought myself up in the bachelor creed that a baby was a bore, a nuisance, a horror; and that its cries were distressing, agonising, maddening. There's been exaggeration in the matter. I don't mind the baby up-stairs, bless you! not a bit. I don't like its crying, I confess; but I don't mind it. It's nothing to what I thought it would be; and then its chuckle and crowing are certainly pleasant. I don't think Infancy has ever had credit sufficient given to it in those respects. To think of the Rembrandt down-stairs taking to the baby as she has! It's wonderful. Somehow women seem to me to get intoxicated with babies, just as if they were so much grog. They pretend they don't care for them at first, and would rather not, and then they begin to sip; and, finally, go regularly mad about them. You should hear my Rembrandt talking nonsense to the baby for hours together, and dancing it about, and rocking it till she must be tired to death; but she'd rather go on till she dropped, than give way to any body else, bless you! It's extraordinary what an influence a baby has in a house; rules it, quite. Why, do you know, that one day when the baby was ill, or they thought it was (I think, myself, that babies often pretend to be ill just to assert themselves, and test their authority), well, they thought the child had a croop-cough, or something of that sort; and I could not get Sally to clean my boots; no, not for any money, I couldn't. She was too busy with the baby; and what's more, I submitted to it. I did, upon my word. I wore dirty boots all that day, for the first time in my life."
"Ah! Mr. Phillimore, you ought to have been a married man, and a father," said Mr. Martin, laughing.
"Do you think so?" and the picture-dealer mused over the observation. "Somehow it never occurred to me to be so."
"But the baby considered as a work of art—"
"Flemish, at present. Oh! very Flemish. Between you and me" (Mr. Phillimore lowered his voice), "it isn't very pretty just now; though I wouldn't for the world hint such a thing, up-stairs. It isn't nice in point of colour; the flesh tones are particularly hot and overdone; it's wanting in expression, too, and repose; and I'm not at all sure that it's quite the right thing in point of drawing. But it's not to be looked upon as a finished work at present, it's a mere sketch; and it's in very good hands, and I've no doubt they'll make something of it. Perhaps a Fiamingo modelled for Rubens; or if it should ultimately develop into a Study of a Child by Sir Joshua! a companion to Infancy—say—what a prize it would be, what a glorious thing! God bless me! only to think of it!" and the dealer grew so warm with his enthusiasm that he had to rub his bald head with a large red and green silk handkerchief, quite laboriously.
"I thought the baby very pretty; but, perhaps, that was because I was godfather," remarked Mr. Martin.
"Well, I'm bound to say that it looks remarkably well from certain points of view. Very much depends upon the pose. But in a particular pose every body's good-looking almost. Sometimes the baby is a very nice object indeed. Only the other day, I was going up-stairs, past the front drawing-room; it was partly open, I couldn't help peeping in, just a very little. I was not noticed, and my curiosity harmed no one. But, near the fire-place, there was one of the loveliest compositions I think I ever beheld. It would have fetched any money at a sale. A perfect riposa. The father, in shadow, was by no means a bad St. Joseph, while the Madonna and child were of course delicious, worthy of the best days of Italian art. I never felt so proud of my lodgers before."
There was a knock at the door.
"That's St. Joseph," said the dealer. "I know his knock. Don't go away. The Rembrandt will open the door. Dear me, how I've been wasting time! I had something I particularly desired to say to you, but here have I been carried away by my foolish fancies about the Fine Arts, and my old picture-dealing habits. But look here. How shall I begin? Bless my soul how stupid I am!"
He walked up and down the room hurriedly, with an evidently embarrassed air. Then he stopped suddenly.
"They tell me," he said, with some solemnity, "that St. Joseph on the first floor is what's called an author—a writer—a literary gentleman. Is that so?"
"Yes. Mr. Wilford is the author of one or two books of some fame."
"Is he indeed, now? Well, so I was informed. Dear me! to think of that." Then, after a pause, he asked abruptly. "Is he poor?"
"There—there. You're astonished, you're offended. I've said what I oughtn't to; and it's all no business of mine, and so on, and so on. But my motive is not impertinent—it's all right and proper. I do assure you it is.
"Doesn't he pay his rent?" asked Mr. Martin, laughing.
"Yes, yes, he pays his rent—regular—to the day. I've not a word of complaint to make on that or on any other score. I may be doing wrong, though I don't mean it. I'm only a tradesman, and I don't know much out of my own line of business, perhaps, if you come to press me on that point. But I once knew a writer—a literary man if you prefer it—who wasn't rich, not by any means, who on the contrary, if I may say so, was deuced poor—uncommon, infernally. He lived in a garret not far from here, and was a good deal in debt, and wasn't often flush of money, and didn't dress very well—and in fact was about as shabby a looking beggar as you ever set eyes on, and wasn't over clean, and not often sober—I never knew a fellow take so kindly to gin as he did. Well, they found him one day almost starving in his back attic, and I and some others helped to put him on his legs again; and you don't know how comfortable it made me feel doing that; for he was a clever fellow, no doubt of it—he wrote all the poetry for the big blacking establishment in the Strand, and I have heard say that he sometimes did verses for Catnach! A wonderfully clever fellow, and very good company when he was sober. In fact, I may say, while I am on the subject, that I know him now, and that he comes to see me now and then, just to say how d'ye do, and borrow half-a-crown or so, and see if there is anything to drink anywhere about the premises. His name is Loafe, one of the Loafes of Cow Cross, I believe. However, that's neither here nor there. What I want to come to is this. I heard that my lodger, St. Joseph, was a writer, and then the thought came to me whether, for all his punctuality about his rent—for he is deuced proud, I know that—whether, for all that, he mightn't be poor too—not so bad as the other chap I was telling you about—Loafe—but still poor, hard up, you know, sometimes. And I wanted to say that if he'd rather wait as to paying his rent, or if he'd rather not pay it at all, or if he'd like me ever to lend him some money, or—by George—if he'd like me to give it him, he should have it, as much as he liked, as long as he liked, or for ever, if he chose.
"I am sure, Mr. Phillimore, this is most kind—really generous, but—"
"Now don't be in a hurry. Though I live here I'm well off—as well off as many tradesmen that have left their shops for good and all, and gone to villas at Brixton. My wants are not many, and in fact, I don't spend my income. A nice glass of port—not every day, mind you, or I shouldn't value it so much—first-rate washing for my neck-ties, and the best blacking for my boots. Those are my only extravagances; all the rest are simply necessaries, and cost a mere trifle. I go half-price to the play now and then, but what's that? If my lodgers want help, or anything that money can buy, they shall have it—by Jove they shall—or my name isn't Isaac Phillimore.
"But, my dear sir, they want nothing. Mr. Wilford is a steadily rising man; he's doing well—very well indeed. I should say he was making money fast. Authors are not what they were. Authors are not all like—like the gentleman—Mr. Loafe, I think you said—your friend, who composed the blacking acrostics in the back attic. Nowadays, literary gentlemen eat and drink of the best—in moderation—and ride in carriages, and don't wear shabby clothes, nor write verses for Catnach—at least not all of us. For I must tell you, Mr. Phillimore—I, also, am an author."
"You an author? You, Mr. Martin? A superb Sir Thomas Lawrence! Can such things be? Say no more, I am convinced. Authors are changed indeed. An author a Sir Thomas Lawrence! I pictured him a tatterdemalion by Callot! Pray forgive me. And not a word to St. Joseph—I wouldn't offend him for the world. And it's all arisen from my love for my lodgers. I won't detain you a moment longer. I dare say the dinner up-stairs is waiting for you."
The Sir Thomas Lawrence, his smile stretching to a hearty laugh, made his way to the drawing-room.
He was heartily greeted by Mr. Phillimore's lodgers.
"Hullo! here's George at last. We thought you'd forgotten us. How are you?" cried Wilford.
"How are you, Wil?—how do you do, Mrs. Wilford?—how's baby?"
"Now, Vi, let's have dinner. I think Martin's hungry, and I know I am."
Wilford Hadfield and his wife were residing on Mr Phillimore's first floor. They were called Mr. and Mrs. Wilford.
"What a mistake," quoth the picture-dealer. "What injustice I've done the riposa. I feel the Raphael would be very angry if she knew, and the Velasquez would turn to a Spagnoletto in expression. I should like to be of use to them. They're a charming group. But I've made a wrong start. I think I must put on another cravat, my emotion has crumpled this; and perhaps have just a glass or two of the port, to steady my nerves; perhaps go half-price to the play, to amuse myself, for there'll be a tremendous reaction after all this excitement!"
CHAPTER XII.—MR. PHILLIMORE'S FIRST FLOOR.
Nearly two years have passed since Mr. Fuller's daughter Violet left Grilling Abbots church the wife of Wilford Hadfield. Time has very little changed her. If possible, her beauty has been enhanced by her new position. A wife and a mother, she now possesses claims for admiration even more remarkable than those of pretty Miss Fuller of Grilling Abbots. And Mr. Phillimore's judgment was perfectly correct, and one to which it is believed the reader would give unqualified assent, provided the same opportunities for arriving at an opinion were available—the young mother bending over her baby son formed a very charming composition indeed, in every way Raphaelesque and beautiful. Wilford, the St. Joseph of the group according to the picture-dealer, is still pale and gaunt-looking, but his dejected manner has gone; the grey has made no further advance in his locks and beard; his eyes are brighter; he may be said, altogether, to look younger than when, two years back, he was recovering slowly from his nervous illness. He is alert, active, industrious, for his life has now colour, and object, and worth. He is a hard-working man of letters, who has achieved respectable literary fame; he toils earnestly for the support of his wife and child, for he has been true to his old resolutions. He has declined all aid from his brother, or to receive any share in the Hadfield property. He has permitted to be carried out in their strict integrity the terms of his father's will. Still the brothers are good friends, and correspond occasionally. But the letter-writing is conducted as a rule with greater punctuality by the ladies of the two families. To Violet, Gertrude addresses very long narratives concerning her children, the doings at the Grange, and the latest Grilling Abbots news; while Violet returns equally interesting despatches, written closely on several sheets of note-paper—and the writing crossed as only women cross writing—containing full particulars of her little boy, especially in regard to the colour of his eyes and hair, with certain digressions as to teething and gums, and other infant distresses; and information also as to Wilford's health and doings, and literary progress. Stephen has been once or twice in town, when he has visited his brother and sister-in-law residing on Mr. Phillimore's first floor, and been cordially received. Wilford, in spite of much fervid invitation and solicitation, has steadily refused to revisit the Grange—at all events, for the present, for so he has qualified his refusals, whether with any idea of availing himself of that qualification must remain a secret known only to himself. So it may be noted that Violet and Gertrude have, between themselves, two or three little grievances, upon which they occasionally harp and comment and interchange opinions in their correspondence. Amongst these subjects of regret and complaint should be stated Wilford's steady renunciation of the name of Hadfield (his first book—a collection of essays, very fairly successful—was published under the name of George Wilford, by which, indeed, he is generally known to the world); and further in his declining to return for ever so little to Grilling Abbots, in his hesitation to be acknowledged as the uncle of his brother's children, and worse than all in the slight offered to Gertrude's last baby by his refusal to stand as sponsor, or to give his name to the child. (N. B. This is the second baby since the one referred to in Violet's letter, set out in a former chapter, and about which a similar cause of offence had arisen. Gertrude had been persistent in her endeavours to draw her brother-in law as closely as possible to the family at the Grange. it says much for her and her efforts in this respect that she had even forgiven these uncomplimentary proceedings in regard to her offspring.)
George Martin, of Plowden Buildings, frequently visited Mr. Phillimore's first-floor lodgers. In the first place, he had been known as an old friend of Wilford's in days gone by; he was now his literary ally, they had been collaborateurs on various employments, they had many sympathies, entertained many opinions in common, and were greatly attached to each other. But their pursuits were rather approximate than identical. Martin's literary achievements were mostly of a critical nature—he was allied as a reviewer to more than one journal of importance. Wilford had of late ventured more into the realms of imaginative literature; he began to be recognised as a writer of fiction, and he had a novel of full length on the eve of publication.
Violet had at once perceived that Martin was in every way worthy of being her husband's friend, and always welcomed him with pleasure to their home. George Martin not slowly won the appreciation of Mrs. Wilford. His regard for her husband would have been almost sufficient recommendation, but it must be added to this that Martin was, in the language of the picture-dealer, "a very fine specimen of Sir Thomas Lawrence"—that is to say, a man of refined and agreeable mien, handsome, intellectual, and with singularly attractive manners. And this—to Mr. Phillimore's amazement—notwithstanding that he gained his living by literary occupation.
George Martin was therefore often a guest at the table of the Wilfords. No very special arrangements were made on his account. The dinner was always sufficient yet simple. He was not converted into an excuse for unusual stateliness or pretentious discomfort. He was paid the compliment of being supposed willing to be contented with the ordinary habits of the family. Violet was too good a housewife ever to provide ill-conditioned meals. Dinner parties were not given by the Wilfords; nevertheless, George Martin was always sure of good cheer and a pleasant evening, when invited to the first-floor in Freer Street. The dining together of three people who are intimate friends is really a very pleasant thing.
The Rembrandt rendered inefficient service at the dinner-table—but three diners can generally manage with very little attendance. The cloth removed, a bottle was produced which, if it did not reach the choiceness of quality of Mr. Phillimore's port (in pints), was nevertheless pronounced, by all interested, to be of a highly creditable vintage.
George Martin took great pleasure in these little dinners in Freer Street. A hard-working Temple bachelor, he seldom "went into society," as the phrase is. He could not often devote time sufficient to such a proceeding, and gradually he had confined himself more and more to the retirement of his rooms, content to lead a life quiet, if sombre, which permitted to him the full enjoyment of his literary tastes, and made no calls upon his leisure for the accomplishment of inconvenient etiquette. For society is exacting. You are required incessantly to render homage and swear fealty, and acknowledge your vassalage, or you are accounted contumacious and unworthy, and your privileges are denied to you. Your time and your smiles and your best mots; your white neckcloth, varnished boots, and gloves of exquisite fabric, must always be ready, producible at the very shortest notice; hesitate, and like a martinet officer, society pounces upon you, and dismisses you from her ranks. It was not from the churlishness which often chains men to dull, dismal lives in obscure dwellings and by-paths of the world, that George Martin shrunk from social intercourse with his contemporaries. He was in every way fitted to shine where culture and cleverness and polished manners were esteemed. And he would probably have liked to have earned distinction in this way; but somehow he had turned his life into different channels. Indolence and industry had combined to effect this. He could not sufficiently apply himself to the wooing of society's smiles and caresses; he followed with too great an avidity contrary pursuits. But in the society of his friends in Freer Street, he found considerations for his tastes in both directions. There was an elegance and refinement and repose about Violet it would have been hard anywhere to match. He felt that to earn her regard was a fair exercise of all his powers of pleasing. While her husband was his valued fellow-workman, whose presence was a warrant for his adherence to professional considerations.
"Don't you think, Mr. Martin, that Wilford is looking very much too pale and thin?" Violet asked.
"This is Violet's constant crotchet, you must know, Martin. I believe we are all said to be slightly insane on certain topics. This is Violet's weak point—my state of health; my paleness and thinness. I really ought to be a skeleton by this time, considering the shocking way in which I've been going on, or going off, I should rather say, during the last two years, according to Vi's account."
"Yes, you always try to laugh off the question," said Violet; "but I shall still ask Mr. Martin to give me his opinion."
"Well, say Martin; do I look very pale and thin?" asked Wilford.
"Yes, I think you do. I've been thinking so for some time past," answered his friend.
"I was sure Mr. Martin would agree with me," exclaimed Violet.
"Yes, Vi, but it's only to agree with you that he says so."
"No; my opinion is perfectly unprejudiced. You ought really to take a holiday. I am sure you have earned one; you have been working very hard indeed of late."
"No holiday for me, just at present. I must see my book safely through the press, first; then we can, perhaps, begin to think about holiday-making. Do you know, Martin, it's rather cruel and tiring, and desponding work, correcting one's proofs. They come dropping in, day after day, a sheet at a time. One gets to have at last such a minced notion of one's book; at least so I find it. I grow so giddy over the fragments, I can't put them together at all at last, and fail to have any idea as to what the thing is really like and worth as a whole."
"I see you've been torturing yourself dreadfully. You really ought to have a change; or you'll get much worse if you've taken to thinking in this way. Let me prescribe for you," said Martin. "Go to Paris for a week."
"Thank you, Mr. Martin," said Violet, gaily, "that is precisely my advice. He needs change very much, and I am sure a week at Paris would be a great benefit to him."
"No, no," said her husband, rather seriously, "that would never do; besides," he added, "I hate Paris."
"You hate Paris! You heretic!" cried Martin, laughing. "But I forgot, everyone does not think as I do, though that is not a reason why I should be wrong. But I am not an imaginative writer, I don't deal in fiction—I criticise, I don't create; and it seems to me that there are only two places worth living in—London and Paris. I would divide my time equally between them if I could; but I am obliged to remain in London the greater part of the year; when I do get a holiday I go to Paris; the holiday over, I return to London."
"You do not care, then, for the country, nor the seaside?" Violet asked.
"I prefer people to places; I would sooner have crowds of faces round me than be alone in the midst of magnificent scenery. A mountain is very superb, but can one look at it honestly for more than five minutes? Is it not exhausted and done with at the end of that time, especially if one is neither a poet nor a painter? And the sea is very grand, and I enjoy it immensely for a quarter of an hour; I watch it bend down and turn summersaults and tumble into foam; I watch the repetition of this feat again and again, till at last I think I know all about it, I begin to yawn a little, I grow decidedly weary; I think I know all the sea can do; disrespectfully I throw a stone at it and turn from the beach to see about the Paris or the London trains. A dreadful confession, is it not, Mrs. Wilford?"
"Yes; and I can only half believe it. But the country—do you not find it a great relief after hard work in town?"
"It's too great a relief. The violent change upsets me. The absence of noise, for instance; the awful quiet of the country makes me feel somehow not that there is no noise, but that I am suddenly deaf and can't hear it—not a comfortable sensation. And country fare is too good for me, it makes me ill—I miss my metropolitan adulterations—and then I so miss the crowd; I want the streets and shops and houses, the swarms of men and women."
"But the scenery?"
"Very wonderful and charming, but it never keeps my attention long. I have nothing in common with it, so it seems to me. There is a want of human interest in it. Do you care for reading poetry that is all landscape and colour, flowers and water and sky, and hasn't one fellow-creature breathing through it? I confess it tires me dreadfully. I am frightfully practical. I have lived so long in towns that I have lost my taste perhaps for the country, just as captives become so accustomed to their prisons that they quit them with regret. And there is no real solitude and retirement in the country; where there are so very few people every one becomes as it were the public property of the rest. For real isolation and quiet, London, after all, is the only place."
"And especially a top room in the Temple, London."
"Yes. One is there snug and uncared for—alone and private—and yet only a few steps to reach a struggling crowd, all new faces which one will never see again. There is a fine field for contemplation! There is variety! It is more comfortable to be one of a million than one of a dozen. And I don't like country people over much; they are friendly but bumptious, kind but conceited, and they hold Little Peddlington to be the garden of the world!"
"I am quite shocked at your opinions," said Violet; "and the way in which you talk of the country and of country people I account as a personal affront. I only wish Madge could have heard you."
"I shouldn't have dared to speak so openly had your sister been present."
"Madge would have gone exploding about the room like a firework," said Wilford, laughing.
"And you call this assisting me, Mr. Martin, to persuade Wilford to go out of town! Thanks for your aid! You are a most dangerous ally—you overpower those you profess to help. I shall leave you now to persuade Wilford by yourself. Perhaps you want to enjoy exclusively the credit of bringing him round to my opinion. I must go, for I think I hear baby calling."
Violet quitted the room. The two friends drew their chairs more nearly together.
"Jesting apart," said Martin, "I agree with Mrs. Wilford. You are really not looking very well, and a little change would do you a great deal of good."
"You are right," said Wilford, after a slight pause. "I am not well, but I would not confess so much to Violet; it would only occasion her uneasiness and alarm. Let me push forward with my book, for that must be attended to now, and I'll take a holiday—a good one—and recruit thoroughly. Yet I hardly know why I should be ill."
"You have worked very hard of late. Does your head pain you?"
"At times. But my sleep is very broken, and I dream terribly when I do sleep. I am nervous somehow. Small things distract me—the sudden opening of a door, a slight noise in the street, anything happening unexpectedly, sets my heart beating quite painfully. I tease myself with all sorts of anxieties about my book and career. I have all sorts of presentiments about Violet and my child. I look forward to the future with a sort of dread of I know not what. Even while I speak of these things I am seized with a nervous trembling I am totally unable to control. Have you ever felt like this?"
"Once or twice. Something like it."
"And what have you done?"
"I have brought myself to believe thoroughly in the realities of life. I have gone by the express to Paris and dined sumptuously at the Trois Frères. I have left off work and enjoyed myself, and I have found my nervous system to recover rapidly under such a course of treatment. Try it in your case."
"I think that mine requires rather more serious remedies. But something I must do shortly, for the thing grows upon me. I seem to have a difficulty at least in severing what is fact from what is mere matter of fancy and foreboding."
He stopped for a few minutes, and then asked in an agitated tone:
"Did you ever feel as though you were followed in the street—continually followed by some one whom you did not know, could not see, go where you would? Tell me, Martin?"
"Never. But do you imagine that you have been so followed?"
"It seems to me so, and I am not sure that it is simply imagination."
"You think you have been really followed?"
"Sometimes I feel quite sure of it."
"But the fact can be easily ascertained."
"Not so easily. Go where I will I hear foot-steps behind me; turn when I will to discover who follows me, and I can see no one. May one not grow nervous in such a case?"
"Bah! Wilford, the nervousness occasions this fancy—is not occasioned by it. I have heard of some literary men being frequently followed," said Martin, laughing, 'but it was for debt. That is not your case, I know. Besides, the sheriff's officer is not a phantom, he can be seen and felt, on the shoulder especially."
"Hush! Not a word more of this, Violet returns."
A cup of tea, one or two of Violet's favourite songs—Wilford's favourites, too—from the Mozart book,—the voice of the singer has lost nothing of its old exquisite beauty and music,—and George Martin, delighted with the melody, and though it is yet early, rises to depart.
"Indeed I must go," he says, pressing the hand of Mr. Wilford, "I have an hour or two's work to-night that may not be postponed. What am I to say to the printer when he comes to-morrow for copy, if I stay longer now? Good-night."
"One moment, Martin. I'll walk part of your way. I've hardly been out all day."
They were in the hall putting on their hats.
"A letter, sir," cried the Rembrandt from the kitchen-stairs.
"You're so abrupt, Sally, you quite frighten one," said Wilford.
"It's a bill, Wilford; the precursor of the bailiff," and Martin laughed.
"It was left by a boy, sir, just this moment," Sally stated.
A gentleman in the front parlour overheard this conversation. It seemed that he had not gone half-price to the play.
"A boy!" said Mr. Phillimore to himself, "yes, but a very bad specimen—not at all a nice head. I saw him. There are faces like his in some of Hogarth's works; especially in the Idle Apprentice and the Progress of Cruelty."
"Take care of the letter till I come back, Sally; or—stay, you may be gone to bed,—I'll put it in my pocket."
And the two friends went out. They passed down Freer Street on their way towards the Temple. They had failed to perceive that a boy, of small stature, leaning against a lamp-post on the opposite side of the way, had watched their departure from Mr. Phillimore's, and was now stealthily following them, though at some distance. A boy thin and active, with long, thick, dark, straight hair, cut sharply and forming a sort of rectangular block at the back of his head. His cap was of the kepi pattern in use at certain French schools; but there were no pretensions of a military or at least a uniform character about the rest of his dress which was ordinary enough. He had a yellow-complexioned brazen face with a cunning expression and small restless green eyes. For some streets the boy succeeded in following Wilford and George Martin. Suddenly his progress was arrested—a large hand pressed heavily upon his shoulder. He started, but recollected himself, stooped down, twisted himself, and would have escaped but that the hand moved to his collar, and held him with a firm grip it was hopeless to struggle against.
"Arrêtez donc, cher enfant!" said a calm but rather grating voice.
"You let me go! You let me go! You hurt me! What have I done?" whined the boy in English, but with a strong French accent.
"You follow gentlemen in the street, is it not so, you little fox? I have seen you. You know me?"
"No, I don't know you—I don't know you! Let me go! You let me go!"
"Be quiet, will you," said the voice, and the hand released the boy's collar and grasped his over-large ear. "Silence, petit tapageur! You know me?"
"No," answered the boy, sulkily.
"Regardez donc"—and the boy felt his ear pulled round so that he was compelled to look into the face of a tall man in a glossy hat, with a dainty white neckerchief and gold spectacles. He had jet-black eyebrows and short scraps of black whiskers on his cheeks. He was otherwise scrupulously shaven. His appearance gave one rather the idea of a foreigner trying to look like an Englishman.
"You know me now—is it not so?"
"I have seen you before."
"I think so. Ah! little thief,—would you dare?" The boy had stealthily drawn a small knife from his pocket and unclasped it. The action was perceived at once—an iron grip round his wrist, perhaps, too, the painful pressure of a hard knuckle upon the back of his hand made him open his fingers and drop the knife with a gasp of pain.
"Take care what you do," and his ear was pulled sharply. "I have had my eye upon you for some days—upon you and your estimable family, and the excellent Mère Pichot. You will go straight home, if you please, little one. We will have no more following of English gentlemen in the streets. You will present to Madame Pichot the assurance of my high consideration. Make to her my compliments. Do you understand, my charming boy? and let her know that I am on a visit to London."
"What shall I tell her? What name am I to say?"
The gentleman laughed heartily at this.
"Tell her that Monsieur Chose is staying in town. I think she will know who is meant."
He changed his tone to one of fierceness.
"And let her take care—let her take care; I am not a fool. I will not permit everything. The law has been kind to her as yet, but the times may change; and you, little one, take you care, worthy child of Père Dominique. Do you wish to follow the steps of your admirable and amiable father? He is well; but he is not happy. He complains of confinement, and that he cannot see his friends: and he will not see them—not for twenty years. Where do you live?"
"Over the bridge Waterloo," answered the boy, instantly.
"Little liar! You are too quick. You are promising; if it was not that you are really much older than you look.—I know where you live—I know where to find you. Go, then, and above all take care. You are no match for Monsieur Chose—remember that—nor is Mère Pichot, neither. Good-night, Monsieur Alexis."
He released the boy's ear. The boy stooped as though to avoid a parting blow; but Monsieur Chose had, it seems, no further offensive intentions in regard to him. The boy recovered his knife and darted off quickly; but in a different direction to that taken by Wilford and his friend.
"Little devil!" said Monsieur Chose, dusting his strong white fingers as though to dismiss an unpleasant subject. He then lighted a cigar, drew his coat closely round him, took off his hat to bid a courteous good-night to a passing policeman, and went his way with an elastic step, humming a favourite air from the opera of La Dame Blanche.